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Fingerpointing over tape about alleged abuse by Syracuse coach

By Aman Ali

SYRACUSE, New York (Reuters) - Syracuse University's chancellor said on Thursday the school would have fired ex-coach Bernie Fine eight years earlier had it known of an audio tape that suggests he sexually molested young boys, which was being held by the local newspaper.

In an opinion piece published in USA Today on Thursday, chancellor Nancy Cantor noted Fine, who is accused by three men of sexually abusing them when they were juveniles, was fired on Sunday, just hours after sports network ESPN aired the tape.

On the tape is a recorded telephone conversation between alleged victim Bobby Davis, now 29, and Fine's wife Laurie in which she appeared to admit knowledge of the alleged abuse.

Fine, who has not been charged, has called the accusations against him "patently false in every aspect."

Davis first went to the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper in 2002 with the allegations and supplied the recording in 2003, but the newspaper did not publish any stories at the time. Davis then took the tape to ESPN, which didn't publish the recording until last month when more accusers came forward.

In 2005, an anonymous email about Davis's accusations was received by the university, which conducted its own internal investigation but dropped the matter when it failed to corroborate his claims.

At the time, the university was unaware a tape existed and that it was turned over to the newspaper in 2003, information that would have immediately cost Fine his job, Cantor said.

"Fine would have been fired on the spot," Cantor wrote in USA Today on Thursday. "When the tape emerged for the first time on November 27, we fired Fine. Those who held onto the tape for nearly 10 years owe everyone an explanation."

PAPER OFFERS EXPLANATION

The Post-Standard ran a front-page article on Thursday offering its explanation of why it never ran a story or provided police with the tape in 2003.

The paper's executive editor Michael Connor wrote that Davis was the sole accuser at the time and his reporters, despite six months of digging, were unable to corroborate Davis's claims. It wasn't until last month that two additional accusers came forward.

"After many months and much digging, we decided we did not have enough to publish a story at that time," he said.

"Think back to 2003 -- before a second and third accuser, before a massive search and the firing of Fine, and ask yourself: Is there enough proof here to ruin a person's life?"

Attempts to reach both Connor and Cantor on Thursday were unsuccessful.

In 2005, Syracuse University never alerted police or local prosecutors about its own investigation.

"Do I believe that we could have potentially done some things differently? Absolutely," Cantor wrote in USA Today.

"We are a learning organization and, with 20/20 hindsight, everything can be improved," she said.

The U.S. Department of Education told Reuters earlier this week it was reviewing how Syracuse handled the incident to see if the school violated federal laws requiring colleges to turn over crime and safety statistics to police.

Syracuse police did not investigate Fine in 2002 because they were unable to corroborate Davis's account. Police chief Frank Fowler said they too were unaware of the tape in the Post-Standard's possession until it was released on ESPN on Sunday.

"To us, handing over to police materials we didn't feel confident enough to publish was unimaginable," Post-Standard editor Connor wrote in the paper.

"Look at it another way. When police or the district attorney gather evidence and decide they don't have enough to charge someone with a crime, do they deliver their evidence to us and say, 'Here you go, we don't have enough to prosecute but you might get a heckuva story out of this'? Of course not."

Connor concluded by saying the newspaper "agonized over these decisions in 2003 as we do today" but "don't mistake us for an arm of law enforcement."

"Police have their job to do," he said. "We'll keep trying to do ours."

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)

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